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After the Dust Settles, What’s the Next Stop for Dennis Kucinich?

I know this may come as a surprise to some, but Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) will not be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 2004. If you agree with that conclusion, you may be wondering, “What’s Dennis Kucinich up to?” [IMGCAP(1)]

On one level, Kucinich probably is still hoping for a miracle next year, or possibly in 2008, 2012 or beyond. After all, he has for many years been envisioning a political career which culminates with moving into the White House.

In 1972, according to the recollections of one Ohio Democratic political operative, Kucinich, then in only his mid-20s and running for the House, promised in a conversation that he would become the state’s youngest Congressman and later the state’s youngest lieutenant governor.

After that, Kucinich said he planned to become the state’s youngest governor, and eventually the nation’s youngest president.

Things didn’t happen quite as Kucinich envisioned. After serving six years on Cleveland’s City Council, he lost bids for Congress in 1972 and 1974. He was elected Cleveland’s mayor in 1977 but lost his bid for re-election two years later.

He went on to win another term on the City Council but subsequently failed in two more runs for Congress, both primary defeats. Eventually, he was elected to the Ohio state Senate and finally, in 1996, to Congress.

If you can say anything about Kucinich, it’s that he is persistent. In spite of all of his electoral setbacks and no matter the odds, he has continued his quest for higher office.

But Kucinich’s views, his lack of a strong record of legislative accomplishment on Capitol Hill and his political style make it unlikely that he’ll ever lead a Democratic presidential ticket or become an influential force in Congress.

Still, it may be unwise to dismiss the former Cleveland mayor and four-term Democratic Congressman too quickly in national terms. Could Kucinich, who once led Cleveland into bankruptcy, be positioning himself to fill the void left by the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone as a national leader of “progressive” forces?

Whether you agreed with his politics or not, Wellstone was well on his way to becoming a spokesman for the views of grassroots, left of center activists, who advocate change from their communities, neighborhoods and work places, not from large institutions that, they argue, invariably defend the status quo.

Wellstone’s death leaves consumer activist-turned Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader as possibly the only recognizable national “progressive” leader, and Nader, who will turn 70 in February, could use some help, especially inside Congress, pushing a “progressive” agenda.

Like Nader, Kucinich talks about principle trumping pragmatism and portrays himself as a defender of the little guy (and often the have-nots) in a political and economic system that allegedly is rigged to benefit the “haves.”

In some ways, Kucinich’s position in the House won’t be a very useful platform for a national “progressive” campaign. While Senate rules and comity allow individual Senators to speak their mind and offer an agenda (as Wellstone did), a single House Member is powerless and often invisible in his chamber.

While Kucinich has of late made opposition to the war his defining issue, he hasn’t built an extensive record of accomplishment. If he is known for any proposal, it is the creation of a Department of Peace, an idea with limited appeal.

According to insiders, the Ohio Congressman has built few strong relationships in the House and wouldn’t be able to rally support for his agenda on Capitol Hill. “He’s very idiosyncratic. He’s very much on his own. He’s just not that interested in people back here,” one Congressional veteran said about Kucinich.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” responded one House Member about Kucinich’s leadership potential.

But Kucinich wouldn’t need Congressional support to become the “next Ralph Nader.” He would need only a pulpit from which to propound a “progressive” agenda, rally existing activists and raise money for his movement.

He already has a start on fundraising. The former Cleveland mayor has raised almost $3.4 million in his presidential bid, giving him a list of contributors to add to his newfound visibility. (In the last quarter, Kucinich raised $1.6 million, not much less than the $2.1 million North Carolina Sen. John Edwards raised.)

Kucinich may have a hard time giving up his White House dreams, just as many party regulars may find him an unlikely leader for anyone or anything. But if anything is certain, it is that the one-time bad boy of Cleveland politics isn’t likely to just fade away after his presidential bid.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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